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The Lyrics of Identity

This is the second installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Gillian Devereux, Director of the Writing Center and Instructor in Humanities and Writing.

The Lyrics of Identity

By Gillian Devereux

Born in 1972, I was an only child until 1980, the only kid in my neighborhood who went to my Catholic school, the only person in my family distressed by the fact that we had a black and white television without cable for the first 12 years of my life. My parents encouraged me to entertain myself with books, music, and as a little television as possible. I spent decades curled on my bed, stopping and rewinding cassette tapes so I could transcribe lyrics. Later I scribbled my own lyrics which would eventually become poems, or stories, or impassioned passages in half-empty diaries.

I will admit a lack of discrimination in my earliest years, a tendency to doodle Chicago and Journey lyrics on my notebooks, a weakness for Lionel Richie, a belief that “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” had taught us all a critical lesson about desire and fulfillment. But I was a lonely child, bad at making friends and easily depressed. As I entered adolescence, I felt more isolated at home and at school, and this isolation made me anxious and angry, lazy and ambitious, aloof and needy. I still found solace in books, but few I understood addressed the feelings I needed to process. Pop music offered no solace whatsoever, and so I turned, desperate and confused, to punk and new wave.

I buried myself in music, barricaded myself in my room, blasting Tinderbox, Billy Idol, Los Angeles, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Black Celebration, Never Mind the Bollocks …, and London Calling through the flimsy foam headphones of my Sony Walkman. These songs both reflected and revealed — mirroring the emotions my body could barely contain and unearthing other emotions I had not yet been able to acknowledge. This music, this style of lyrics, this raw expression of inequity and injustice shaped the girl I was and the woman I would become. I returned to these songs again and again, letting them guide me through my earliest attempts at feminism and social justice. I can trace their influence on the map of my life, seeing where those artists’ words intersect with my own writing, my own choices, my own beliefs about the world.

When I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, I was immediately drawn to the points in the narrative where he discusses his own relationship with music and lyrics. As early as page 5, he references “KRS” while discussing the love he and his older brother Big Bill had for professional wrestling, and only a few pages later, he describes the summer of 1986 as the one when “KRS-One laid siege to Queensbridge” (pg. 11).

KRS-One – Sound of da Police

Coates juxtaposes KRS-One’s booming challenges to the legacy of black slavery — “You can’t stand where I stand / you can’t walk where I walk” — with words from LL Cool J’s Todd Smith persona, sharing an image of his 10 year old self “throwing up [his] hands, reciting” lyrics (pg. 11). He continues to equate the language of rap and hip-hop with reflection, revelation, and revolution throughout his memoir, frequently invoking the metaphor of music or song when examining how he developed a sense of identity. He describes his first day at Lemmel as one where “[e]veryone moved as though the same song were playing in their heads,” adding “[i]t was a song I’d never heard” (pg. 37). He explains how hearing “Lyrics of Fury” at age 12 showed him the path to manhood, to full participation in the battle for Consciousness, proclaiming “I put away childish things, went to the notebook, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed, and put pen to pad” (pg. 111)

Just as his father’s identity evolved and coalesced through his work running Black Classic Press, Coates’ immersion in rap and hip-hop culture altered his sense of self and his understanding of his place in the world. Although Coates believed “[e]ach black boy must find his own way to this understanding,” he also recognized that “under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone” (pg. 61; 111). In 1988, when “all the world’s boom boxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy,” Coates became a “reluctant convert” to the music of Chuck D and Flavor Flav, falling captive to “the many layers, the hints at revelation, and a sound that I did not so much enjoy as I felt compelled to understand” (pg. 104-105).

Public Enemy – Don’t Believe The Hype


Public Enemy’s second album, aptly named It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, tapped into the “collective memory” of Coates and his peers, reminding them how injustice, corruption, and the Reagan era itself manipulated them, herded them into stereotypical roles (drug dealer, basketball player, thug, failure), and disempowered them (pg. 105). At the same time, Public Enemy’s lyrics resonated with fathers and mothers, linking generations through powerful imagery, insightful social commentary, and references to influential black activists like Dr. Khalid Muhammad, whose words became the introduction to “Night of the Living Baseheads:”

Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god … and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.

Coates takes the time to depict his father, a man who eschewed popular culture, who “watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot,” making an authentic connection to Public Enemy, showing his readers how “She Watches Channel Zero?!” reminded his father of his mother (pg. 54; 104). Chuck D had the same fears and ambitions as Coates’ father and mother, but unlike them and their writers, Chuck D “spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of [Coates’] time” (pg. 104).

In the late 80s, Coates begins to realize “the claws of rage digging into” him would never disappear, that “[h]istory would be altered, not in the swoop but with the long slow awakening” (pg. 58; 91). In the penultimate chapter of his narrative, Coates submits his college applications and reaches the turning point of his senior year. This is the climax of his story; a college acceptance will forever separate him from the comfortable routine of Woodlawn, the powerful camaraderie of drumming, the familiar confines of home. As his identity shifts from child to man, his musical preferences, influenced, as always, by Big Bill, also shift.

Coates writes about Big Bill introducing him to the reggae legends of the time: Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley, artists who, like the activists whose words filled the shelves of Black Classic Press, rejected the language and conventions of racial oppression through their names, words, and beliefs. Coates calls these men prophets, explaining how their music foretold his fate: “I did not know where I was headed, but I knew I was mortgaged to the grand ideal—the end of mental slavery and the fulfillment of the book” (pg. 200).

Here, Coates references not only the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” but also Marley’s inspiration and source text, Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech “The Work That Must Be Done.” Garvey had been invited by the mayor of Sydney, Nova Scotia to speak about his work with the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his speech focuses on the precarious position of people of color abroad and the means by which they might empower themselves:

We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or for ill. If a man is not able to protect himself from the other man he should use his mind to good advantage. The fool will always pay the price. The fool will always carry the heavy burden.

Music critics, scholars, and Marley’s biographers have all observed that “Redemption Song,” more than any other track on Marley’s final album, represents a major departure from the musician’s earlier work. Garvey’s life, work, and death had a significant impact on Marley, just as it did on Coates, who references the activist multiple times throughout The Beautiful Struggle, referring to the Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey buttons on his tie-dyed book bag as “the totems of my champions” (pg. 127). And a young man such as Coates, whose father had risen through the ranks of the Black Panthers, whose playmates included Afeni Shakur’s son Tupac, who would search “liner notes for clues, play back lyrics until they were memory, and then play black memory until [he] gleaned messages imagined and real” must have quickly understood the implications of the line “How long shall they kill our prophets / while we stand aside and look?” (pg. 102).

“Redemption Song” became a prophecy for Coates, just as Marcus Garvey’s words had become a prophecy for his father. Like his father, Coates “took up that call, the charge to make Garvey’s kingdom real” (pg. 55). He brought the resources he had at hand — “an hour, a pen, a pad” — and the structure and rhythm of hip-hop to the fight (pg. 147). He transformed his talent as an MC into a talent for prose, fulfilling the book in the most literal, and lyrical, sense. And like the activists and lyricists before him, he used his words to show the world that “[n]one of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up” (pg. 170).

Bob Marley – Redemption Song (Official Music Video)


Author’s Note: While reading and reflecting on The Beautiful Struggle, I created a Spotify playlist that contains all the available songs named in the book. Periodically, Coates will either reference lyrics to a song or mention an artist without identifying a specific album or track. In these cases, I added songs hip-hop scholars have identified as the most influential to the playlist, which you can stream here.

The Mythical World of The Beautiful Struggle

This is the first installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Jenne Powers, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Writing. 

The Mythical World of The Beautiful Struggle

By Jenne Powers

The first chapter of Coates’s memoir opens with a fight scene described in terms that evoke Dungeons and Dragons, the World Wrestling Federation, Lord of the Rings, and the Transformers. Right away, Coates plunges his readers into the media- and myth-saturated world of his young mind. The opening lines describing Murphy Homes read, “When they caught us down on Charles Street, they were all that I’d heard. They did not wave banners, flash amulets or secret signs. Still, I could feel their awful name advancing out of the lore” (1). The lore here is local legend amplified by a boy’s imagined confrontation with orcs, goblins, and trucks that turn into robot killing machines. By including this kind of imagery and these references, Coates casts himself as a player in a monumental story. His mentors – his father, his brother Big Bill – are larger than life. His journey travels through time into the past and the future. Reading is ritual. He is struggling not just on the path to college, but to the Mecca.

As the chapter progresses, Coates develops the complex voice that characterizes this book. Like many narratives about childhood it is a double voice – at once a child’s and a man’s. His point of view is often limited to his child’s eyes and conveys a child’s enthusiasms and fears (“amulets or secret signs…”) but at the same time it is informed by the experiences and wisdom of mature Coates, the author.

His description of WWF wrestling and its juxtaposition to the Murphy Homes battle especially conveys at once his childish enthusiasm and his adult critique of cultural appropriation and racist media stereotypes:

I was open, and wanted to cheer the Birdman, resplendent in wraparound shades, a Jheri curl, and fluorescent gold and blue spandex. . . . maybe that night he dipped and glided toward the ring, flapping his arms and talking to the parakeets perched on each of his shoulders. I wanted to see the Dream, who was at the height of his feud with the Horsemen, and outnumbered, had taken to guerrilla warfare—masks, capes, ambushes, beef extended into parking lots, driveways and dream dates. But I lost it all out there, and when I dig for that night, all that emerges are the tendrils of Murphy Homes, how they dug into my brother’s head. (6-7)

His child’s eye delights in a grown man acting like a bird and bringing pets into the ring, while his adult’s critical eye sees a dangerous caricature of an African warrior, compounded by the subsequent rhetoric of the Dream, a White character who regularly appropriates Black culture. At the end of the passage, we feel a child’s confusion in the fray as well as an adult’s pain in the act of remembering. This double voiced narration allows Coates to develop the important ideas of Knowledge and Consciousness as expertly as he does. While reading this book, we are immersed in the experiences of a young boy who gains Knowledge every day, Knowledge rooted in his experiences as a young Black man in a world shaped by institutionalized racism. His child narrator may not always grasp the significance of his experiences (nor do we at times). However, we are led through the journey by an expert, Conscious guide – Coates.

Coates tells a story of growing up in a setting rich with myths – some patently fictional, some historically liberating, some media-generated, some community-minded. Young Ta-Nehisi demonstrates his resilience and strength by surrounding himself with so many myths. He is not one to succumb to the danger of a single story. He has many heroes to choose from and villains to battle. His coming of age will be, throughout the memoir, owning and telling his own story: Consciousness.

And his voice is not always easy to identify with. But maybe he is not asking us to identify with him. Coates’s language is intensely personal and powerfully political. It is not an everyday voice – no hero’s is. And his journey is not without peril – no hero’s is. But he will persist, and it is his control over language that gives him the tools he needs to complete his quest. This memoir comprises the mythical origin story of the scholar and public intellectual who brings us “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and Between the World and Me.

Screenshot of ejournal finder search results, with the Search within Publication highlighted

New eJournal Finder and a Google Scholar update

The Library has a new and enhanced eJournal Finder!  If you haven’t used the eJournal Finder before, it is a tool that helps you find Wheelock subscriptions to journals and the articles within them.  The new Finder looks a little different, but the functionality will remain very familiar, with additional improvements over the previous one.   You can access it through the Library homepage by going to the eJournal Finder tab.

screenshot of ejournal finder tab

Try searching for Journal of Social Work Education.  In your Search Results, you can go to one of the databases where full text is available for this journal.  For many of the journals, you can search within that journal.

Screenshot of ejournal finder search results, with the Search within Publication highlighted

The Search within Publication  feature is incredibly handy.  You can put in something as general as the term, “elementary schools” to find Journal of Social Work Education articles related to “elementary schools”.   You can also search for a specific article title, like “MSW students’ attitudes toward transracial adoption”.  This saves you several steps over the previous eJournal finder.  Here is what you will immediately get when you run this second search:

results from an article title search using the eJournal Finder's Search Within Publication feature. Two results.

This new eJournal Finder means you will also have to update your Google Scholar library links.  For those who don’t know what Google Scholar’s library links do: it finds full text from Wheelock subscriptions in your Google Scholar results.

first Google Scholar search results

Go to and select Settings.

Google Scholar homepage with a red box around the Settings link

On the next page, select Library Links.


Google scholar settings page with Library Links highlighted

Under Library Links, search for Wheelock.  Select everything that says Wheelock.

Google Scholar library links page with all 4 current options selected

Please let us know if you have questions!  You can come see us, email us at, call us at 617-879-2220, or chat us via the Library website.


Images in a developing online collection.

Introducing the Online Learning Lab

An exciting new technology is coming to your classroom! Last week, the Smithsonian Institution launched their new Online Learning Lab. The Lab gives anyone access to the Smithsonian’s digital collections, including millions of digitized images, videos, artifacts, and documents. Following the Lab’s “discover, create, share” model, items in the collections can be organized, annotated, and remixed according to your imagination. Have a topic you’re interested in? Create a collection for yourself or to share with friends, like the one I created about my home-sweet-home: Nevada.

Images in a developing online collection.

Creating my collection in the Smithsonian’s Online Learning Lab.

While it’s a fun tool for exploring personal interests, the Online Learning Lab was created for teachers with the help of teachers and is intended to be used in K-12 as well as higher education classrooms. You can use the Lab to give students access to customized collections, including your original annotations, quizzes, and assignments. Students can also create their own collections, making this the perfect tool for a digital exhibit assignment. And even as you add your own annotations and titles, you won’t lose or overwrite the Smithsonian’s excellent metadata so you don’t have to worry about endangering the knowledge of one of our nation’s most venerable institutions.

The Smithsonian is presenting the Online Learning Lab this week at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Even if you weren’t able to make it to Denver for the conference, you can still get started with this incredibly fun and easy tool. So, what are you waiting for? Your class could be on the cutting edge.


Graphic Novels Are Books, Too!

A few weeks ago, I told a few teenagers, who had expressed disinterest in reading, that graphic novels are books, too.   I mean, you have to read them to understand the story, though not in the same way that you would traditionally think about reading.  Part of the experience of reading isn’t just reading the words.  Sure, words are important.  Bad writing can lead to disinterest and frustration; and beautiful writing can elevate the reading experience.  However, there is a something else going on as you process the words on the page – you’re discovering the narrative, analyzing character motivations, and becoming emotionally involved.

Image of a young woman reading a book on a chair. Text: Book hangover: Inability to start a new book because you're still living in the last book's worldGraphic novels have fewer words, but the words they do have  – often in the form of thought and speech bubbles – are important in developing the story and giving insight into the characters.   The artwork, including decisions on how to organize and frame the panels, informs mood and emotions that must be interpreted through a different sort of process – a visual one that “reads” the images.

In the past 10 years, I’ve seen an explosion in the popularity, variety, and availability of graphic novels in the US.  Rather than a genre, it has become more of a format and a more widely acceptable one at that.  Graphic novels used to take up about half a shelf in bookstores and in public libraries; now there are multiple bookcases worth in these places.  Graphic novels have helped reluctant readers to more positively engage with reading and develop literacy skills.  They have also become a teaching tool in the classroom.

Shelves of graphic novels

Photo by Morebyless (CC BY 2.0)

Here are some graphic novels available at Wheelock:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang ; color by Lark Pien. Three stories about the problems of young Chinese Americans.

A + E 4ever : A Graphic Novel by I. Merey. Coming of age story about two lonely gender non-conforming teens who meet and form a friendship.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  A story of a teenage boy on trial for his supposed role as lookout in a murder.

Rapunzel’s revenge by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale ; illustrated by Nathan Hale.  In this Old West retelling, Rapunzel saves herself and gets of out sticky situations using her hair as a lasso.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.  Story of a young girl who signs up for roller derby camp and is struggling with spending the summer apart from her best friend.

Images of 5 book covers. From L to R: 1. a boy and girl sleeping facing each other 2. a lone young black teenager 3. a chinese boy with a robot 4. A boy and a girl with very long hair 5. A girl with blue hair on skates

Looking for more?  A fan of English-translated Japanese graphic novels like I am?  The Wheelock community has access to the Boston Public Library and its many branches and to the Brookline Public Library.  Just bring in your Wheelock ID and they will hook you up.  I recommend Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama for those interested in bleak yet compelling post-apocalyptic stories and Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya for lighter fare.
Cover of the first volume of Fruits Basket. Cover features a high school girl with long brown hair surrounding by orbs containing the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac

For those interested in how graphic novels work in the classroom, check out our blog post from 4 years ago and the below books:

An cover image inspired by Superman; a man peeling open his white shirt to reveal the words, "The Graphic Novel Classroom".

The Graphic Novel Classroom POWerful Teaching and Learning with Images. Available online at Wheelock.

Image of a teacher standing in front of a blackboard pointing a stick to the dialogue box: Class, Please Open your Comics

Class, Please Open Your Comics : Essays on Teaching with Graphic Narratives / Edited by Matthew L. Miller. Available online at Wheelock